My family left Sierra Leone during the 10-year civil war, when I was very young. As a result I have very few memories of my time there, but now I was going back, a stranger perhaps, but still and always a child of my country.
I had left Australia with a sense of disbelief that I was actually travelling to the place of my birth, to my origins and to my roots. I was excited, but also apprehensive about what I would experience once I arrived. My mother and I transited through Kenya, then Ghana, and that final leg to Sierra Leone, though the shortest of all the flights, seemed to be the longest. Finally we arrived; I turned to my mother and said, ‘Welcome back home’. She had tears in her eyes but was smiling a great joyous smile.
Sierra Leone welcomed us with a blast of heat that shocked me. I began sweating profusely, and looking around, noticed the discomfort of my fellow travelers, most of whom were obviously as unused to this heat as I was.
We went through customs anxiously looking for my uncle, my mother’s younger brother who was to meet us, and ran to embrace him when we finally spotted him. He and my mother looked at each other intently as it had been so many years since they last saw each other. I looked around, observed everything, and breathed in the air of my country – the place of my birth.
My first day and night in Sierra Leone passed in a blur of car rides, relatives, new sounds, voices, tastes, and sensations. I met cousins, aunties and uncles, friends and neighbours – some who just popped in to see what the fuss was about. And when we eventually fell into our beds sleep welcomed us immediately.
I soon came to love the bustle of life in Sierra Leone. We stayed with my uncle at his home in the eastern part of Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone. This area is renowned for being heavily populated, hectic and very loud, but I personally loved the atmosphere around me, although it meant the transport system was exceptionally slow, and it took more than an hour to travel to most places in the city.
The local market people soon recognized me as an exotic visitor, and concluded that I therefore had a lot of money. Whether I liked it or not, I was seen as a foreigner in my own land, given away by my mannerism, speech and even appearance. I did feel a little hurt as I did not want to be seen as an outsider, I wanted to experience Sierra Leone as someone who truly belonged and as a serious food lover, I made sure I ate like a local. I loved the variety of foods offered by the street traders from daylight till late at night, and was addicted to the local sour yogurt by day and hot roasted meat (known as kanka kang) at night. Kanka kang is a traditional roasted meat, with onions, special seasoning mix and mayonnaise to taste – it was my daily treat.
The highlight of my trip however, was seeing my grandfather, my only living grandparent and he had not seen me since I was a toddler. We visited him at his village and everyone turned out for this special event. My grandfather came out of his house and my mother and I were ceremonially introduced to him – “Alhamdulillahi rabbil alameen”, he exclaimed in Arabic “Praise be to God.”
Tears of happiness welled up in my eyes, we all embraced then went to sit under a mango tree, where the family gossip began, and my mother caught up with the comings and goings of her relatives and friends she had left behind. All too soon it was time for us to leave, and my grandfather took my hands and blessed me, in front of the whole family. This was a real privilege as receiving a blessing from an elder family member is especially respected in my culture. We value these blessings because we believe they are honoured by God, and they follow us throughout our lives.
I also experienced going to church in Africa for the first time, because when we originally left we were Muslims, but now I had returned as a Christian. Most of my Sierra Leone relatives are Muslim and they were quite surprised to find out I and my immediate family in Australia were now Christian. This was not a great issue however, as, overall, Sierra Leone is very religiously tolerant. Indeed this is seen as a national strength.
My trip to Sierra Leone was more than I could have ever imagined. I saw my birthplace, the places where I spent my infancy and met the people who had possibly held me when I was a child. Growing up in Australia, I had sometimes felt a longing and sadness as I never had the experience being surrounded by my extended family due to the civil war. Meeting them all was a priceless experience and I now have the fulfilment of knowing where I come from in the truest sense of the word.
I learnt too that Sierra Leone and Australia are forever a part of me. I could no more escape my Australian identity in Sierra Leone, than my Sierra Leone heritage and identity here in Australia. I have been, I am, and always will be a product of the two nations – they both shape the way I view the world, the way I communicate, and my very identity – a privilege I share with all my fellow migrants to this wonderful land of ours.